Heath Old Boys Association


Letters from Old Boys


Ray Crossley [1951–1959]

I have only recently discovered the HOBA website and I want to say how much I have enjoyed the information it gives and particularly the history of Heath through the decades.

May I, before it is too late, add my tribute to C.O. Mackley and Eric Taylor whose memory I revere both for the personal kindness they showed me and for the perceptive monitoring of my modest progress through History and English ‘A’ levels. Their criticisms were sometimes devastating, but always expressed in the gentlest way and always absolutely justified.

In 1956 or 1957 COM, Biddy and I appeared together in the Victorian melodrama Maria Martin and the Red Barn. It was the second half of a double bill and followed Antigone. At one performance the pistol Biddy used to shoot me failed to go off at the crucial moment. With the presence of mind of a true professional he turned the pistol round and, to heartless cheers and laughter from the audience (which by then also included all the cast of Antigone), bludgeoned me to death instead. COM’s sanctimonious lamentations as my father and Archie Littlefair’s pathetic resignation as my mother, comforting herself in a rocking chair by the fire, had a similar vociferous reception.

I think COM enjoyed from time to time shedding his gravitas and formidable discipline in favour of self-mockery. For most productions he took on the thankless, and unseen, task of prompter. In a production of The Knight of the Burning Pestal, however, he fulfilled the same role but on stage in full Elizabethan costume. Smoking a churchwarden pipe he played up well to Derrick Whatmough’s diatribe against people ’who make chimneys of your faces.’

And it isn’t entirely true that the many impersonations of COM were never done in his presence. At one Favorite meeting over which, as usual, he presided, I was given ‘Yoga’ as a topic to speak on impromptu for two minutes. It came to me that I could use as spoof yoga movements some of COM’s well-known mannerisms such as standing on tiptoe whilst clutching the lectern and stroking his left temple with his right hand stretched over the top of his head. This cheekiness was, of course, well received and afterwards COM complimented me on a tour de force. I have to believe that he was sincere and not offended by my getting a cheap laugh at his expense.

Another meeting of the Favorites which sticks in my mind was one addressed by Walter Swale on, I suppose, the challenges of adulthood. Amongst other things he advised us not to have sex before marriage as this would take away some of the joy of the wedding night. The advice was conventional enough (and for a gay pupil like myself largely academic) but I thought then as I think now that it was a progressive talk for a northern grammar school headmaster to give in the 50s when any mention of sex of any kind was officially unknown.

Another piece of advice he gave was that we should not have all our teeth taken out and replaced by false teeth unless it was absolutely necessary. The surprise and shock of hearing that anyone would even contemplate such a course of action has stayed with me and it is advice which I have followed to the letter.

Although I was put on Daily Report in my second year I never found Walter quite as fierce as his reputation and he could be amusingly dry. After an unsuccessful application for admission to Cambridge I went to his study and announced in all seriousness, ‘I have had a letter from Jesus, sir.’ Walter looked flatly at me for a moment and then, with considerable comic timing, turned away saying ‘Now come, come Crossley.’

His Headmaster’s Comments on my end of year reports could be to the point, too. He was undoubtedly right to warn, ‘He must learn that he will not get everywhere by charm.’ He must have been a little bit susceptible to it though because he invited me in 1960 to propose the toast to the four distinguished guests at that year’s Old Boys Dinner.

All good wishes
Ray Crossley